Monday, August 15, 2011

Words that look far too much alike

It happens that every now and again, when venturing forth through the rough terrain that is the English language, one stumbles upon words that look (homonyms) or sound (homophones)alike. Yet, though these words may look and sound similar, or really exactly the same, their meanings are vastly different.

Homonyms can be tricky because one can say to one's friend, "Meet me at the bank at three o'clock." If you live both by a river and that special place we go to put our money away for safety (and earn ridiculously poor interest), your friend may be in a bit of a quandary. In such a situation, he or she may end up in a swimsuit by the the cool waters of the river, ready for a picnic in the sun; or standing beneath the awnings of the local bank, wondering if you are finally getting that small business loan for your up-and-coming lightsaber business.

Homophones pose a much more serious problem, however. Why? Because though a bank may be a bank, whether a building or the slope of a river, an isle is most certainly never an aisle. Ever.

Yes, we have once again stumbled upon a very specific pet peeve of mine. An isle is a small spit of land surrounded by a body of water. An aisle is a walkway, usually surrounded by seating or shelving. Grocery stores have aisles, not isles. The ocean has isles, not aisles.

If ever in doubt, one may a. Pull out one's compact OED; b. Employ the services of that lovely website known as "Google"; c. use an on-line dictionary such as or or even, my personal favorite,

A list of common homophones:
Eye, I
Balled, Bald, Bawld
Basal, Basil
Bear, Bare: I feel the need to note that the word "bare" is only ever nakedness. Ever. One does not "bare a load" unless one is stripping it.
Cache, Cash
Capital (a place), Capitol (money)
Cede (to withdraw or give up, as in a point), Seed (a thing you plant)
Die (to cease to exist, life stops here, do not collect 200 dollars), Dye (to stain something with color). Important note here: dying is a sad thing, that bit where your heart stops beating. Dyeing is where you are in the process of staining fabric that lovely vermilion color that took you two months to find.

Augh, there are too many to even try to list. Fear not, fearless reader! As more come to me and offend me with their glaring wrong-ness, I shall again venture forward into the Land of Homophones and post a new and entertaining blog!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Underline vs Italics

As a child, when I was taught to write my book reports in elementary school, I was told time and time again: Underline the titles of books, or I would be marked down. But then in high school, I was taught that, no, no, no, we italicize our book titles. When I asked my teacher why the change, she said she honestly didn’t know. It was simply becoming more “popular” to italicize.

I knew there had to be a real reason, however, rather than a simple change in aesthetic. And, of course, there is.

What’s the difference? Here’s where it gets a little funny:

There isn’t one.

When one underlines a title (note: this applies to longer works such as books, epic poems, periodicals, newspapers etc. Shorter works such as single poems, short stories and song titles are encased in quotation marks), this signifies a note, presumably to the editor, to italicize the marked words.

Example: In the good guide to grammar, Punctuation Plain & Simple, by Edgar and Jean Alward, I learned that titles come before proper names.

Example: In the late-nineteenth century novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, the title character undergoes many hardships before achieving true happiness.

Example: I think the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is one of Robert Frost’s best.

As most of us have no editors—or if we do, we hopefully try to make their jobs as easy as is possible—there is not only no need to underline, but it looks, dare I speak the word?, unprofessional. If you are writing something by hand, and then intend to type it, underlining can be more visible than trying to make your cursive look like italics. But when it is typed, do be sure to use italics, rather than an underscore.

Though I can see why, I suppose, we are taught in grade school to underline. When I was a child, back before the real boom of technology, we weren’t “taught” typing until fifth or sixth grade. As my handwriting was already rather atrocious (my school refused to allow us to print anything; papers had to be written in cursive at all times), attempting to make me write a title in italics would, most assuredly, have been a really rather rotten idea.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

There they're sitting, with their thistles.

As the title demonstrates, this time I am going to rant blog about the different, but oh-so similar sounding words, their, there, and they're. I'm not sure why this is such a tricky one, but it is one of the more flagrant misuses of the English language of which I can think.

So, let's begin, shall we?

There: This is a place. A specific location, sometimes to which you may point.
Example: "Where is the hawk?" she asked, her eyes shaded by the delicate curve of her hand.
"It's right there," he said, pointing at the bird circling above, a mere black speck against the heat of the sun.

Do you see how he is pointing at a specific place? There is the location of the hawk.

Their: This is a possessive adjective, of the third person. So, in other words, it's the plural of his or hers.
Example: The cup belongs to the Humperdink couple. It's theirs.
Example: Their eyes shone like glimmering lodestars in the dark of night, the only beacons in that endless sea of black.

In each case the word their denotes possession of the noun it modifies. One could say, The cup belongs to Prince Humperdink. It's his. When making this plural however, simply switch to their and you are good to go.

They're: This is a contraction of the words: they are. It is only ever a contraction.  Never write, "Where does this Humperdink cup go?" she asked. "They're?"
If you do, know that a small cat somewhere is being smothered to death by dark avenging angels of the English grammar. And it will be all your fault. Not you're fault. Your fault.

Example: "Where are they?" Jake demanded, gazing anxiously from his seat on the porch for his daughter and her weasel of a Prom date.
"Calm down, Innis. They're just running a little late."
"They're forty-minutes late, Ethel! Where did I put my shotgun?"

Though the Humperdink couple barely made it through high school, they both employ proper use of the "they are" contraction. And so should you.